A reality check - An insider's guide to costume design

If you are considering a career in costume design, supervision or costume making in film, TV, commercials or theatre, Vinilla Burnham's top tips provide an invaluable overview from the perspective of an insider. Careers advice, even from colleges, can often be out of sync with the reality of working day to day in a profession. This 'Insider's view' tells us what it really takes to get in to the world of costume design, and importantly, how to stay in!

In this article

The following tips are not always examples of what I have done in every circumstance; most are what I have learned I should have done in retrospect!

Art or design?

Contrary to popular belief, costume design is not predominantly a creative career. Creativity is one factor of many. Essentially, design is driven by practicality, although it is possible – but rare - for costume to become an art form. As a working costume designer, supervisor or maker, it is as important to be able to manage budgets and schedules, as it is to have talent and imagination and to be able to design beautiful and original costumes. Our work is not judged on how great the costumes look alone, but whether it comes in on budget, on schedule and also on how much grief the costume department give the producers!

It's vital to be able to 'work against the clock’

Like it or not, costume is probably the least tolerated department for holding up the camera or interfering with production in any way. Despite us having to deal with very late casting, with barely enough prep time with actors who invariably arrive right at the last minute, it is highly unlikely that schedule changes will be made on account of the costume department. We just have to manage somehow. Schedules should be made in consultation with the costume department, so negotiations can be made with the producer or production manager, but generally, time is never on our side and the hours in a costume department are invariably long. In film, we have to arrive in the morning well ahead of the actors (and crowd) to prepare for them, and at the end of the shooting day, usually 12 hours, we have to ‘wrap’, clear up, do the laundry and line up the costumes for the next days shooting. An average work day is about 16 hours, and this can be seven days a week, sometimes for weeks on end.

Advantages of being 'hands on’

It’s not all about design. Far from it! Don’t underestimate the value in learning how to make costumes yourself. It adds a wealth of knowledge and different valuable skills to the role of being a designer or supervisor. Costume makers are a vital part of the design process. They can make or break a costume and are worth their weight in gold to the designer. To know that you can become ‘hands on’ when needed puts you at an advantage – I find it is always the case at the last minute when time has run out and there are never enough people to do all the jobs that still must be done. The advantage of learning how to make costumes is that you can add your own finishing touches that may otherwise not have been time to do, make alterations, or even do repairs in an emergency (ideally not while the camera is waiting!). It’s good for you and your team to know that you can, and will, do it yourself if you need to.

Costume making as a career

If you enjoy making things, or have some training and experience in costume making, it can be a valuable alternative income, either making costumes yourself, or assisting an established costume maker. Full time costume makers can often earn more than designers. Making chorus costumes for the theatre can be lucrative. Although the work is just as hard and the hours often as long as designing, if you prefer to be less in the firing line and spend less time on the phone, in meetings, or dealing with politics, it can be just as creative working in a ‘costume shop’ or working freelance from home as a costume maker. Designers are delighted when a costume maker offers up visual and technical solutions and alternatives. It is after all teamwork, makers and designers create the costumes together.

What it really takes

Staying power, patience and flexibility is an invaluable asset to working in a costume department. It is well worth honing these character traits in advance! Nothing ever happens when it is supposed to, and things change every five minutes, so that your head will often be in a spin. It is not usually any one person’s fault, more likely circumstantial, usually money, or lack of it, is at the root of most problems. Budgets are always stretched beyond the limit which causes the incredibly tight deadlines we are faced with, particularly in the film business and TV commercials. All departments are routinely expected to perform miracles and achieve the impossible. (If you are dedicated and passionate about your work, you will probably thrive on this. We all have ‘The show must go on’ ringing in our ears, and like to think that it was because of us, it did!).

Remember that every department is in the same boat, their problems are just different to ours. You don’t have to be a doormat or a martyr or work until you drop, that would be counter productive. In fact it’s high time Costume had more of a voice to be reckoned with. However, being temperamental and difficult will get you nowhere fast, especially not when you are starting out. (Wait ‘til you have an Oscar, then you can be a Prima Donna and get away with it!). If you are ever on a film set, observe how smoothly and skilfully (most) assistant directors negotiate their way through the most impossible schedules, personalities and situations with politeness and humour - yet with authority. Learn from them too!

Get noticed - quiety

Don’t feel you have to be larger than life and in people’s faces to be noticed. There are a lot of ‘big’ characters in the costume world, but in my experience it is often the quieter ones who just get on with it who are noticed - and asked back, again and again. There is enough distraction and too much information to deal with to cope with any more ‘high maintenance’ people than there already are. What if you are a budding stand up comedian as well as a budding designer? - Great! But it will be appreciated much more if you are funny as well as being a diligent team member, and if you put the job in hand first, with the jokes as an added extra.

Be the individual that you are and let your ideas and suggestions be known if you feel you have ideas to contribute, but initially you need to prove yourself to be as indispensable as possible to the team, whether it be a team of 3 or a team of 40. This could even be little things like willingness to make tea or to tidy up - that will get you brownie points for sure! You may have got your foot in the door, but if you want this as a career, you need to make sure you will be asked back.

All in a days work

Don’t be surprised or disappointed if you find yourself a job, or work experience, in a costume department or workshop, fresh from college with a degree and portfolio to rival James Acheson or Colleen Attwood, only to find that the working day consists of queueing all day in Primark to do ‘returns’ (taking unwanted items back for refunds), or being presented with an entire regiment’s boots that need polishing, or worse - 500 smelly wet crowd costumes need the mud removing before being shipped back to the costume house. The ‘slog’ element is all part and parcel of the job. It is swings and roundabouts however, and you might equally find yourself in a fitting with a Hollywood actor (do offer him a cup of tea!), or at a dress rehearsal of a ballet at Covent Garden. The good thing is, that every day will be different, if polishing old boots was not what you envisaged doing when you got your degree, it won’t be long before you get a change of scene. Take the rough with the smooth and you will find out what you like and what you are not so keen on, and whether the smooth bits compensate for the rough. This will help you decide if you want to dedicate yourself to this profession, because dedication is what it really takes.

So how do you get in? (if you haven't been put off by now!)

CV’s. Everyone must have one. The question is, how do you get your CV in front of the key people that are likely to further your career? It’s a sad reality that the majority of CV’s land on the desks of overworked, stressed out people who barely have time for their own ‘To do list’, let alone reading CV’s from complete strangers. From my own experience, I put CV’s to one side to attend to later. I feel guilty when I see them again the next time I tidy my desk – (which could be weeks later), and scan them for key names of designers or shows I might know. Any CV’s which stand out (they seldom really do), get put to one side again. The others will go, I am ashamed to say, without a reply. The exception to this is if CV’s are e mailed. It is so much easier to reply to these, even if I have nothing to offer, I might make a suggestion so that they don’t go away completely empty-handed. The key thing here is that contact has been made, even if tentative.

From time to time, a CV will arrive at EXACTLY the right time which is nothing anyone can predict, but it is the stuff that new careers can be made of.

Work experience and trainees are snapped up quicker than paid jobs because they are either free or a nominal amount. It is nearly always the case that there is never enough in the budget for the number of crew needed to do the job comfortably, and there are always enough people you already know to give the paid jobs to. So this is where freebies are at a distinct advantage. This way, they get their foot in the door, and the savvy ones create themselves a niche. If they prove themselves in some way (not necessarily in every way), they will probably be asked back on the next project by any one of the team they first worked with, or they will be recommended to another designer looking for someone.

It may be necessary to work as Work Experience or a trainee even if you are past that stage. On one hand it can be looked upon as exploitation, but on the other, as a strategic move to further your career by actually doing it, gaining experience and meeting the people that do the recommending and hiring for the next time.

CV tips:

Bad spelling and grammar on CV’s is a big turn off for me personally, because it shows a sloppiness and lack of attention to detail that does not bode well for a job in costume which is all about detail. Make sure you have attached your CV to your e mail, many arrive without with an embarrassed following e mail this time with the attachment. Dyslexia is not normally a problem in the costume department, and for your CV, all it takes is spell check, or someone (parent, grandparent or teacher), to proof read and correct it so that it reads as professionally as possible. Start being professional now, it will pay off.

And please, address your cover letter or e mail to the person by name. ‘Round robins’ will make it into the trash the fastest!

Lastly, don’t cc your e mail to every other costume designer and supervisor in ‘The knowledge’ (The professional directory), clearly for everyone else to see that it has just been rattled off to all and sundry. If you do take the round robin route, at least bcc your e mail to keep it confidential.

...and how do you stay in?

As I have said, doing a stint of work experience or being a trainee, can be a sound investment to future employment and moving up the ladder faster. The most valuable thing of all is making contacts from the inside. It is entirely up to the individual how they play their cards, but it can also be difficult for you to know what is expected of you. If someone shows no aptitude for the job, is obviously unhappy, disinterested or will not take constructive criticism, they will not be asked back, nor will they be recommended to anyone else. Think about what the people you are working with want as well as what you want. If you help them by being committed and hard working, they will in all probability, look after you and help you in return. Most people like being mentors. If you forge good relationships with your co-workers and bosses, you can reap the rewards for years to come, by more offers of work and recommendations to other designers and supervisors.

People are not always at their best under extreme pressure and stressful conditions or when they are exhausted. The work can sometimes push people to their limits, so you will doubtless encounter tempers and irrational behaviour when the heat is on, usually when there is no time left and still mountains to move. It happens on every job. There can be personality conflicts (as there are everywhere). Some people feed off drama and intrigue and create drama if it’s not there. People have different personalities, but my preferred way of working is not to waste valuable time and energy on unnecessary conflict. It’s a very inefficient way of working as it wastes time, which wastes money. It is very unprofessional.

Isn't talent an important factor at all?

I have talked about the nuts and bolts of the job until now. So what about the good bits? The stuff that made you interested in the first place, the actual designing? I have often said that I consider the job to be about 10% creative. This may shock you, but there is seldom any time do actually do costume designs. This is a whole other subject, one that I will be writing about soon, but this is no reason for you to stop drawing, painting, sculpting and designing because it all adds to your strengths. It is important to keep your eye trained and your drawing skills honed, you will just have to do it in your own time, although it could be called upon when you last expect it!

Designing isn’t the only was of expressing yourself creatively within the job. Choosing the right clothes from the high street for office worker extras can be equally as rewarding, after all, our job is to work with the actors and directors to interpret and realise the character as written in the script. Costume is part of the storytelling too!

Whether you have to create an atmospheric fantasy costume for a grand opera, or for a pensioner wearing an outfit bought from a charity shop for an episode of East Enders, each character and costume is unique to the team that is creating it. Getting it right for the production feels great.

There is nothing quite so satisfying as working with actors on their character when you both feel that you have hit the nail on the head with the costume. One of the joys for me is working with such a broad spectrum of talented individuals, not only in the costume department, but in the art department, creature effects, hair and make up artists, armourers, and not to mention writers, actors, ballet dancers, opera singers, models, acrobats, creature performers, puppeteers, stunt men, musicians, extras (correction: Supporting artists!) even kids and animals. No two days are alike, you will find yourself in rehearsal rooms, fitting rooms, studios, stages, auditoriums, workshops, shopping centres, airports, hotels, locations at home and abroad - mountains, supermarkets, beaches, muddy fields . . . car parks . . . farms . . . forests . . . .

If you are still interested in pursuing this as a career, congratulations, I have not put you off! You must be made of strong stuff. You need to be. I wish you the very best of luck.

© Vin Burnham 2011

Written by

Vinilla Burnham
The Costume Coach

An award-winning costume designer, Vinilla has created costumes for celebrities and brands as diverse as Lady Gaga, Batman and In The Night Garden. She’s happy to share insider secrets and useful tips.